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Sam and Jim and Creativity (and me)

I’ve been listening to Sam and Jim go to Hollywood, a terrific account of TV writers trying to produce to produce a series (and sell it to the networks). Here are two sites they recommend: Drew’s Scriptorama provides actual example scripts to many famous films. Wordplayer provides lots of columns on the screenplay writing process.

Their audios provide great insights into the trials and tribulations of people in a creative field. Obviously these guys are brilliant hilarious people, and it’s about how they deal with the reality that their ideas might not “make it” in the field. Some great insights:

  1. moving to Hollywood helped them tremendously by letting them know what’s in the pipeline at the moment. They may have a brilliant sitcom idea, but the timing may be totally off (the studios may be focused entirely on reality tv shows for example).
  2. It is easy for creative people to spend so much time polishing a single script that they don’t have anything else they offer when the big break comes through.
  3. Somewhat contradictorily, they suggest  focusing on one type of project instead of playing around with different genres (saying that working at different genres lets you “exercise different muscles).” You need to perfect one kind of writing before you can move on to others. Creativity tends to help you with any kind of project, but you shouldn’t automatically assume that things transfer. I don’t have a background in scriptwriting, but I’ll be embarking on several script projects over the next few years. As a good writer, I can do almost anything, yet I recognize how hard it is to try something different (something that I just don’t do naturally). With prose writing for example, there are some things I am just not good at. Fast stories, dialect-riddled characters and snappy dialogue. I used to think I was not particularly competent at the reflective/introspective story, but my confidence in that genre has grown over the years. By the way, I always enjoy reading books beyond my creative powers. A few months ago I finished Old Wives Tale (and I thought, this is perfection, but I probably could write like that if I tried). But then I encounter Mary Robison, John Updike, Diana Abu-Jaber, Kim Stanley Robinson, J.C. Oates; much as I enjoy these writers, I could never write like them; that’s just who I am, but it’s fascinating to see what they can do with their creative talents. Script writing is not beyond my abilities, but it’s totally different and requires learning new habits, new rules, new kinds of ideas. But at some point I just have to declare some kinds of scripts to be offlimits for your talents. Know what you got, that’s my motto.
  4. Sam and Jim tried to describe how they develop creative projects, how they decide what ideas are worth doing, and what are not worth doing. That is probably one of the hardest aspects to writing. One clue: does the script tend to write itself, or do you get stuck at lots of parts? Getting stuck is a part of the process, and often not a sign the project itself is defective. On the other hand, if you’re always getting stuck, it requires a lot of guts to walk away from it in favor of other projects. I had an idea in 2004 for a series of stories (call them my Sunrise stories). The idea was brilliant; I spent a month or two writing them down, and the stories were writing themselves; they were taking me in great directions. Bam, bam, bam. I had 15-20 workable chapters (or outlines for them). I couldn’t wait to get going. After writing a few chapters, I ended up putting the project off for another year once I saw how much momentum the project had. I needed to free up my schedule significantly for them, and I wouldn’t be able to get around to it until spring, 2006. That’s one frustrating thing for me about creative projects. You have to schedule them far in advance (especially when your dayjob imposes limits on your time). I’ve always envied people who could have an idea and just write it next week (and finish it that same week). I am still catching up on things from the 1990’s in my idea basket and rarely have time to fit in new things in my current schedule (though once in a while I succumb–see this story of mine for example which I dashed off in a few hours).
  5. Two TV shows that dominated the thanksgiving dinner conversation: My Name is Earl and What Not to Wear. I’m happy to report that several other people shared my enthusiasm for CBS’s How I met your Mother.

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